A distinct pattern in the changing length of blood telomeres, the protective end caps on our DNA strands, can predict cancer many years before actual diagnosis, according to a new study from Northwestern Medicine in collaboration with Harvard University.

 

The pattern -- a rapid shortening followed by a stabilization three or four years before cancer is diagnosed -- could ultimately yield a new biomarker to predict cancer development with a blood test. This is the first reported trajectory of telomere changes over the years in people developing cancer.


Scientists have been trying to understand how blood cell telomeres, considered a marker of biological age, are affected in people who are developing cancer. But the results have been inconsistent: some studies find they are shorter, some longer and some show no correlation at all.

 

The Northwestern and Harvard study shows why previous results were confusing. The resulting paper was published April 30 in EBioMedicine, a new a new journal from Elsevier in collaboration with The Lancet and Cell Press.


In the new study, scientists took multiple measurements of telomeres over a 13-year period in 792 people, 135 of whom were eventually diagnosed with different types of cancer, including prostate, skin, lung, leukemia and others.

 

Initially, scientists discovered telomeres aged much faster (indicated by a more rapid loss of length) in individuals who were developing but not yet diagnosed with cancer. Telomeres in people developing cancer looked as much as 15 years chronologically older than those of people who were not developing the disease.

 

But then scientists found the accelerated aging process stopped three to four years before the cancer diagnosis.


“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” said Dr. Lifang Hou, the lead study author and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Because we saw a strong relationship in the pattern across a wide variety of cancers, with the right testing these procedures could be used to eventually diagnose a wide variety of cancers.”


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